The Power of Yoga in overcoming a mental illness
I DON’T THINK IT’S AN ACCIDENT THAT YOU’VE LANDED HERE.
Hi you. For those of you who don’t know me yet, my name is Nila and I started this blog about 1 year ago, when I felt the ambition to share what I have learned on my personal recovery journey. Ever since I started writing about my three pillars of recovery – namely nutrition, yoga and psychology – my hope is to maybe help others struggling with a mental illness as well, by putting my feelings into words. To be honest, I am still scared to put this content out there – into a world where mental illness and well-being is still a topic that is too often ignored. I am only sharing from my own experiences, but I hope that one day someone will read this and can somehow relate to what I am writing about – and start to take action as well.
My personal story
I started practicing yoga when I was 21 years old, but I believe I have always kind of “practiced the yoga” off the mat. Even my mum says I was born as a little Yogi 26 years ago. Maybe that’s true as “Happy Baby” is still one of my favorite asanas.
I remember the first time I stepped outside my comfort zone and onto the yoga mat when I travelled to Bali in 2017. I remember feeling so small and weak in so many ways when I arrived on this spiritual island that soon became my home for the next 6 months. From the moment I attended my fist class in Ubud, yoga introduced me to a new idea of becoming a bigger version of myself. By this I don’t just mean regaining a healthy body weight, but also regaining the voice that I had somehow lost. It showed me that becoming “bigger” and taking up space was not a bad thing as I had always thought. It showed me that my voice could actually have an effect on the world – at least the people around me in the shala.
In my first yoga class I learned to meet myself in the authenticity and reality of the present moment. I recognised that what I had done in the past had not worked. Yoga gave me an alternative. What I recognised is that our bodies live mostly in the past whereas our minds live mostly in the future. Yoga helps us to bring both into the present moment. Practicing yoga taught me to accept where I was while, at the same time, guiding me to further improve.
My body needed healing, my heart needed healing, my soul needed healing.
Two years ago, my practice started purely physically, purely with the asana. At that time, I just wanted to strengthen my body. Of course there is value in that because strengthening our body, our vessel of life also strengthens our belief in ourselves. But during the last 2 years, yoga has become more for me. The daily practice has become my temple where I connect to something greater than myself. It has become a place where I feel like my voice and my message has the ability to reach people.
To me it’s important to share the practice of yoga because I believe that it didn’t just save my own life. I knew that the same day, I decided to step on the mat for the first time, I dedicated myself to recovery and to a practice that would reach beyond any prior expectations.
The power of yoga
I truly believe that yoga has the power to save other people’s lives as well, because I could see it happening in the shala at every practice. And I believe that yoga is so powerful that it can actually save people’s lives and help them recover from whatever they are struggling with. My belief is so strong, because I could see it every single day on people’s mouths and in their faces. I could see them transforming their beliefs in themselves – no matter what mental disturbance they were struggling with. I could see them completely overcoming the fears and anxieties they had about their bodies, their performance and their abilities. Most importantly, I believe that if more people practiced yoga in their lives it could actually create a ripple effect that extends far beyond our limiting beliefs.
I am convinced that once we start to believe in ourselves on the mat, we can then take that power off into every other aspect of our lives – whether that’s in developing a healthier relationship with food, a better relationship with people or whether it’s giving us the courage to pursue the career of our dreams. I belief that there’s so much power to be unlocked through the practice of yoga.
Yoga is something that has made me more me and I’m so grateful for it. When I practice, I feel more myself than during any other time of the day. But the thing that is often overshadowing this powerful tool is its misuse as something harmful.
Yoga is not a weapon
Sometimes, in this online space, I see yoga and its teachings being used to sow division and hate: the opposite of its intention which is union.
Unfortunately, I often see yoga being used as a justification for judging what other people eat, how other people dress, how other people move their bodies. I see people weaponize it as a way to compete with one another about how “enlightened” or flexible we are. At its worst, I see it being used to spread the idea that there is only one “right” way to be a yogi.
When yoga is practices this way, we fail to read the fine print of it: Yoga is NOT interested in transforming our body; it is interested in transforming our relationship to our body that we already have, helping us celebrate its usefulness and its beauty.
I’m not here to pretend that I have all the answers to your questions or that I am living the “purest” lifestyle conceivable. And I’m not an enlightened guru with the authority to decide what yoga is or isn’t. But “yoga” at its core means to unify, to bring together. And if I know one thing for certain, yoga is meant to honor and hold space for the differences between us. We can be loving towards others while still taking pride in the decisions we make for ourselves – but it’s not our place to tell others how to live their lives.
Yoga is a healing tool
I think that the judgements of others show us where we still have room to heal. Yoga is a healing tool. So let’s use it as such. Leading by example with compassion in our heart that is the real yoga. That is the unifier.
The fact of the matter is that unlike many peoples opinion about people with a mental illness, you are NOT broken, and you do NOT need to be fixed.
All you need to do is to become aware of the habits and patterns that no longer serve you. That is, you need to learn the tools and practice them to the best of your abilities. All that is asked is that, most of the time, you have space cleared in your mind for things other than what’s on your plate or how your body looks (and the times when it gets cluttered up there, you patiently work your way back down into peace). Full recovery is possible. I can never say that enough. But don’t get too attached to one idea of what “recovery” looks like: and there’s no shame in having to put effort into maintaining your unique form of it.
Yoga takes daily practice. It isn’t a magical over-night cure-all.
Its true power lies in showing us where our roadwork is. On our mats we confront truths about the patterns and beliefs we’ve been living in, and have a chance to try on a new way of being.
All the downward-dogs, the handstands and the chaturangas are just tools, mirrors that allow us to see ourselves in a new light and from a new perspective.
What’s beautiful about this, in my eyes, is that in the end, the yoga’s biggest job is to show us the power we already have inside of us. It’s not something outside of us that creates the magic so many of us experience on our mats: it’s re-awakening what’s inside, and has been inside all along.
Ever too often in our society it can be easy to want to look for magic pills or gurus who have all the answers. We’ve all done it at one time or another. But the yoga helps us return back home to our inner selves, to commit to doing the work, and to be gentle throughout it all.
It is than that we recognize that we have had the guru we were so desperately searching for inside of us all along.
Start with yourself
One thing I learned during recovery is that we can only be a resource for others, when we have gone through the darkness ourselves. Leaders cannot guide others through change without doing the work themselves, first. In order to help others find healing in the yoga practice, we must first feel what it is like to heal in our own lives and bodies.
Your yoga practice serves you, and it prepares you to serve.
I believe, yoga is a symbiotic relationship with no winners or losers. Your practice nourishes you so that you can nourish others, it allows you to learn the tools of healing first hand so that someday, you can help guide someone else through them, too. Your yoga practice is for you, but it is not all about you. (More about the importance of self-care practices here.)
The healing work we do, the effort we put into being confident and peaceful and aware and grateful is not just so we can throw our hands in the air one day and say, “Woo! I did it! I’m healed and finally enlightened!” We practice so that we can go on into the world and put to use all that we’ve learned to begin the cycle again anew in someone else. It’s so that we inspire just one other person to begin their own first chapter, to seek out what yoga can do for them. So that someday, they start asking how yoga can help them serve others. At least this is this is the reason I share my own experiences from the dark to the lightness.
The dark and the light
One of the most challenging parts of my healing journey was learning how to honor both the light and the dark.
Of course it’s important to fill ourselves up with love, to surround ourseves with positive people, to bathe in positive affirmations and honor the things we love about ourselves. We practice this each time we close our yoga practice with Namasté: honoring the love and light within us and each other.
But healing also calls upon us to look at the darker parts of ourselves, the parts we’ve tucked and hidden away over time. It requires us to identify our self-limiting beliefs, to acknowledge when we are the cause of our own suffering. It also requires us to go against our ego and take the courage to ask for help when we need it. The first step to changing anything is to first identify what we’d like to change. With that I mean seeing the dark for what it is and not just hoping we can hide from it forever. That simply doesn’t work – at least not in the long-term.
Yoga means union
For me, to practice yoga is to practice unification. The word “Yoga” means to “yoke,” to bring together. We unite the light and the dark through our practice, we see and honor all parts of ourselves. This is, we go into the dark to see it, witness it, but we consciously choose to no longer linger there.
We choose to step back into the light over and over again until this scary process doesn’t feel so heavy anymore.
I belief that yoga prepares us for all of it. It equips us with all the tools we need for healing: the breath, the gratitude, the effort, and the surrender. Yoga is so transformative because it mirrors life and all its forms. Every single practice has it’s moments of challenge and it’s moments of sweet stillness. It is oppositional by nature, just as we are. Just as we must heal and surrender into the darkness from time to time.
Above all, yoga re-connected my mind and body into a friendship that had been destroyed by my eating disorder. Ever since I started practicing yoga, meditation and breathwork, this friendship stays together off the mat and into the larger world every day of my life.
You already have everything you need
I hope that through my work, someday, others will find their own unique way to continue the healing. Perhaps they will heal the earth, perhaps they will heal the sick maybe they will heal the disadvantaged. No matter where you start, once you take the first step the healing will go on, and we will all be better for it.
Trust me when I tell you that healing truly is possible. You are the guru that you have been searching for. You are the one who can lead you from the darkness into the light. Everything you need is already inside of you.
At this moment, you may feel meaningless or worthless, but I promise you that one day you will look back and say: “Ah, yes, this is why I stayed. This is why my presence matters. This is why I worked so hard to heal.” And I promise that time will come!
Soon, I will be flying back to Bali to attend my second (300 hour) Yoga teacher training with the lovely Zuna tribe. But it was very important to me to leave you with this message before I take off to new adventures and learn more about the healing potential of Yoga.
Be patient and feel free to follow me on my journey on Instagram. 🙂
Remember that change does not come over night. During the last couple of years, I have worked so much on myself so that today, I am finally ready to share and connect.
I would love to get to know you and your very own personal story.
Let’s all share the Love & Light that unites us.
Take care & Namasté,